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Friday, October 18, 1996 | return to: torah


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Noah: Finding light in shadow of darkness

by Rabbi Amy Eilberg

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Noah

Genesis 6:9-11:32

Isaiah 54:1-55:5

Have you ever thought about what they did for light in Noah's ark? Think about how you might tell this immortal tale to a child, complete with all the fascinating logistics of getting all those animals into the ark, and caring for them for weeks on end. Now think about how they brought light into the ark, in the midst of an extraordinary rainstorm, so that they could see inside that big ark.

Depending on which translation of the Torah you use, you may think the Torah text answers this question. Perhaps it does, and perhaps it doesn't.

"Make a tsohar for the ark," says the text (Genesis 6:16). But it's not clear what this unusual Hebrew word means. Some say it means light (like the Hebrew word tsohoraim, or noon). Others translate it as "window" or "opening," since this is what the context demands, though the etymology is not at all clear.

I became interested in this question after reading a remarkable column by Howard Schwartz in Torah Aura Productions' "Learn Torah With..." series (volume 3, number 1). Schwartz begins with another unanswerable question in an equally familiar text, Genesis 1. If, as the text tells us, the sun and moon and stars were created on the fourth day of creation, then what sort of light was created when God said, on the first day, "Let there be light"?

The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash wove a wonderful tale about a kind of primordial, otherworldly light that came into being in response to God's first command, and that continued to trace its way through the history of the world. This sacred light originated, some say, in the light of God's own tallit, and that God kept this sacred light in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve's expulsion, where it would await the righteous in the world to come. According to some, this light imbedded itself in the very words of Torah.

One version of the legend imagines that God placed a bit of this primordial light in a jewel, [tsohar]. God gave it to Adam and Eve, who passed it down through the generations to Noah (who used it to light the ark), and eventually to Abraham, then Moses, to the desert sanctuary, where it lit the ner tamid (the eternal light), to the Temple itself. (For a fuller account of the legend, see Schwartz's book "Gabriel's Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales.")

Now I was curious to know how other commentators understood the source of light in the ark. Predictably, I found a vast array of answers. Some imagined that, simply, there was a window in the ark that let in natural light. Later commentators offered more fanciful views, clearly intended as answers to the broader question, "How are we to find light when we find ourselves in dark places?"

One interpreter said that Torah is our light, no matter how dark or stormy it gets outside. Another said that the words of prayer can always light our way. (The Hebrew word teiva means both "word" and "ark," giving rise to wonderful plays on words in connection with our story.)

Another said that spiritual insight, the clarity to understand our place in the world and our relationship to God, can always be a source of light. A Chassidic commentary -- in what sounds like a remarkably contemporary idiom -- suggested that it is the presence of friends in our lives that offers us light.

One of the key questions of spiritual life is where to look for light in times of darkness. We would do well to contemplate the question when the sun is shining. It is wise to practice consciously cultivating connection with sources of light and hopefulness and connectedness when times are good, so that we have the tools and resources to draw on when, inevitably, the storms come.

Where do you find light? What are the things that you do to create more light for others? Will you know what to reach for when the lights go out?

At the end of this great mythic story of deluge comes the equally powerful image of the rainbow. After destroying the world this one time, God offers to the human family the covenant, the sacred promise that never again will the world be destroyed by divine hands. As demonstration of the promise, as an eternal reminder, as a source of hope, God periodically places the rainbow in the sky.

This week of Parashat Noah, may we renew our faith in the light, in the rainbow, in our own sources of hopefulness, and renew our role in making this light more real in the world.

The writer, former director of Kol Haneshama Jewish Hospice of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, is now on sabbatical.


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